U.S. Energy Dept. kicks off 2010 with billions for cleantech

Last week was a big one for private investing in cleantech, with close to 10 companies in the sector getting funding — Coda Automotive, EcoFactor and Nordic Windpower among them. But on Friday, and now today, the government has stepped in to shower green businesses with cash, unveiling a series of big announcements worth millions for clean energy manufacturers, green-collar employers and — most recently — projects focusing on vehicle efficiency.

The latest, a package of $187 million in stimulus grants and matching funds from private industry, is being divided between nine projects working on making trucks and passenger vehicles more fuel efficient. Slated to create as many as 500 jobs for researchers and engineers and 6,000 by 2015 for assembly-workers, the aim is to slash the amount of gasoline used every day in the U.S. by 100 million gallons. The byproduct of this effort would be reducing vehicle emissions by 20 percent by 2030, the DOE says.

A big chunk of the money, about $115 million, will go to projects making freight trucks 50 percent more fuel efficient. The goal is for these automakers to produce technology they can actually demonstrate by 2015. They are looking into strategies like making trucks more aerodynamic, cutting down on idling, and recovering waste heat. The other six projects will receive $71 million, each working toward engines that could improve gas mileage by 25 to 40 percent for average drivers by 2015.

To highlight a few, Daimler Trucks North America got $39.5 million to downsize engines and electrify oil and water pumps to make long-haul trucks more efficient; Chrysler received $14.5 million to downsize engines and recirculate exhaust gases in its minivan model; Ford got $15 million to improve mid- and large-sedan gas mileage by 25 percent; General Motors landed $7.7 million to test a new emissions control system that could improve its Chevy Malibu’s fuel economy by 25 percent.

The DOE’s cleantech gravy train started rolling on Friday, with President Barack Obama announcing that it will award 183 manufacturing facilities across the country with 30 percent tax credits, amounting to $2.3 billion. The idea is to create more than 58,000 new jobs for people who have been laid off from traditional American manufacturing industries, like automaking. As a byproduct, it should also up American exports in the sector and stimulate private investment in the clean energy industry.

Manufacturers will be selected from an applicant pool of 500 based on the nature of their technology, the likelihood of them being commercially successful, the number of domestic jobs they would create, how fast they could get up and running, and whether or not they will lead to a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Recipients will be notified by mid-April.

The contenders are spread across the country and various areas of the business, including fuel cells, solar, wind and geothermal equipment, carbon capture devices, renewable fuel refineries and plug-in components for electric vehicles.

Shifting focus from domestic cleantech, on Friday, the DOE also selected three overseas organizations with which it plans to collaborate to advance low-emissions technologies. The Energy Efficiency Center in Costa Rica, partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council, will train professionals to use energy-efficient techniques and devices, as well as produce research on related topics. The Organization of American States will work with governments in the Caribbean to teach sustainable practices and install more renewable energy systems. And the Dominica Wind Project will attempt to expand distributed wind power in a move away from big turbine farms.